There’s a scene in the new low-budget Canadian horror movie The Void where two characters approach an ominous closed door in a dingy basement. As one moves impulsively to open it, the other proceeds with caution. "I appreciate your enthusiasm," he says to his comrade, "but we need to think this through." The Void doesn’t follow this advice. The charm of Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie’s film is that it’s all enthusiasm and it’s no caution. It takes as many moist, gooey clichés as it can and hurls them against the wall to see what sticks. The resulting splatter is a bloody mess, which, if not a mass-audience spectacle, is exactly what these filmmakers were going for in the first place.
Kostanski and Gillespie are charter members of the Winnipeg-based filmmaking group Astron-6, which takes its name from a throwaway line in The Lord of the Rings and its M.O. from a post–Quentin Tarantino moment in which genre cinema has become an extended game of spot-the-old-movie-reference. In recent years, Canadian directors have held their own in this area, with worthy efforts like Jason Eisener’s Hobo With a Shotgun (whose title is not a metaphor) and Panos Cosmatos’s amazing, synth-driven Beyond the Black Rainbow. Kostanski’s micro-budget 2011 sci-fi pastiche Manborg was embraced on the late-night specialty festival circuit not in spite of but because of its redolent cheesiness. A blob of postapocalyptic nonsense starring the Astron-6 guys in backyard AV-club project mode, the film cost $1,000 and left one wondering where the other $999 went. It was followed by the nominally more polished Father’s Day (an absurdly over-cranked ’80s slasher parody) and The Editor, which lovingly if unconvincingly evoked Dario Argento’s deep-red Italian giallos.
The Void represents a major step up for Astron-6, in terms of both production value and conceptual ambition. It’s got genuine crowd-pleasing potential, even if it will reach its audience mostly through VOD. Grading on a Canadian B-movie curve, it’s closer in look and feel to the sleek, polished Beyond the Black Rainbow than the collective’s other, jokier efforts. At its worst, it’s an attempt to conjure up the sort of earnest, unreconstructed horror movie that they don’t make anymore, but definitely did back in the days of dusty VHS cassettes. At its best, it evokes the repulsive body-horror imagery of David Cronenberg’s early works, including The Brood.
The presence of that film’s star, Art Hindle — a veteran of Canadian exploitation movies who also appeared in Black Christmas and Porky’s, and more recently infamous apple juice magnate turned vanity production mogul Frank D’Angelo’s Sicilian Vampire — in The Void’s ensemble cast is the kind of nod that’s there to delight hardcore fans without distracting the uninitiated. The film’s nominal lead is Aaron Poole, who plays a rural cop trying to process some slightly unusual occurrences, like a wounded teenager lying bleeding by the side of the road, before turning his attention to more pressing concerns. These include a flash mob of masked, knife-wielding cultists congregated outside the local hospital, and the much Stranger Things going down inside among the locked-in doctors and patients, including an act of amateur cranial surgery that serves as the first of several extremely well-engineered shock moments. Poole’s attempt to rally the troops against these threats is what passes for a plot; the answer to what’s causing the weirdness lies, inevitably, in the hospital’s basement.
What’s most enjoyable about The Void is its aversion to drag: It gets going quickly and keeps finding ways to reroute things beyond even savvy viewers’ expectations. ("That escalated quickly!" I said to myself somewhere around the 15-minute mark.) The film’s effectiveness is largely a matter of inventive staging, along with a slew of analog monsters that honor the chunky, tactile handiwork of ’80s creature-effects stalwarts like Rick Baker and Rob Bottin (particularly the latter’s designs for The Thing) and superb production design by concept artist Henry Fong, whose résumé includes the exponentially more expensive X-Men: Apocalypse and Suicide Squad. There’s real filmmaking smarts in the way that The Void’s aesthetic mutates from a drab, John Carpenterish small-town realism into grandly stylized psychedelia over 90 minutes. There’s also some admirable restraint, as when a particularly grisly murder is played out through a pane of glass in shadowy silhouette. And the actors are all solid, including the veteran Alberta-cured ham Kenneth Welsh, whose previous villainous role as Windom Earle on Twin Peaks (sadly not slated to be resurrected in the show’s upcoming third season) hints that there’s something going on underneath his saintly-doctor facade.
But The Void stumbles in trying to create emotional context for the action. When Carpenter made his version of The Thing, he knew better than to give any of his characters a tragic backstory, which had the effect of making them all seem equally expendable; Cronenberg didn’t manage to mix real feelings into the gore until he made The Fly. Kostanski and Gillespie are trying to have things both ways, rampaging through a series of set pieces that reduce their performers to pulled pork and then trying to work in themes of loss and survivor guilt by giving their villain an intensely personal motivation.
This attempt at gravitas is a mistake. It clashes with the essential playfulness of the filmmaking, and shows how far the Astron-6 guys have to go before they can truly challenge the classics. Hindle’s cameo is a total throwaway, but it brings to mind his appearance in Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which is horrifying in direct proportion to how much we care about its characters: Something is lost each time one of them gets Xeroxed by extraterrestrial pods. Beneath its layers of latex FX, The Void means to be a movie about the dangers of not letting go of our loved ones after they’ve gone. But its creators are so happy to exhume the past that it’s hard to take its point too seriously.